Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Эрмитаж: Art Overload

Today we had the day off, so my friends Robert, Dustin, and I decided to take a little excursion of our own. After a bit of late start, we managed to assemble at Palace Square and head over to the Hermitage. Luckily, unlike the first three times I was at Palace Square, I had a working camera with batteries, and managed to take some pictures. The Hermitage museum is right on the square, in the former Winter Palace of the Russian Tsars. Usually the museum was quite crowded, and even today it was surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday afternoon. Luckily however, our wait in line was rather short, and we got into the galleries (for free!) pretty quickly. I think we probably should have gone in with a very exact plan of what we wanted to see, because the Hermitage is HUGE, overwhelmingly huge. You read that it's big, but it isn't until you get there and see room after room (400 total) of art and lavish opulence that the true scale of it hits you. Needless to say I think we all went into art shock/overload pretty quickly. There is simply so much art and so many beautiful rooms, that it is impossible to take in all at once. I pretty much ended up walking through rooms in a daze, there is just too much stuff to stand and look at much of anything for too much time. Almost three hours later and we were pretty much all exhausted, and we had really only looked at one floor! Obviously more visits will be required in the future, but I think I saw the pieces I was most interested in. The palace interiors were all stunning, and I made my obligatory trip to the arms and armor, Renaissance art, and Classical collections; but I have to say my favorite part was the War of 1812 room. The gallery is a long hallway with beautiful skylights and ornate ceiling, whose walls are lined with the portraits of all the various generals who fought in the war against Napoleon, Russian, Austrian, Prussian, and English.
After our Hermitage trip, we walked across the Neva to Petrogradsky Island, and then to the Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress contains three museums, one of which is a church in which all of the Tsars are interred. For some reason a lot of things seemed to be closed on Wednesdays (why? Who knows...) and the fortress museums appeared to be no exception. In the end I was almost glad. I think we were all museumed out, and I think the fortress is worth a whole day's trip. We did get to see a little bit though, including a rather odd statue of Peter the Great. The statue claims to be the most accurate depiction of what the Tsar actually looked like. If the statue is to be believed, Peter was a giant (he was, standing at over 7'0") with an unbelievably small head, and giant arms, fingers, and legs. Everyone we saw was taking pictures sitting in Peter's lap, so I figured I would do the same. I drew quite a crowd however, I think only women are supposed to sit in Peter's lap. I figure Peter wouldn't really mind.
My excursion ended with a rather failed attempt at gift buying. I went to the multi-story mall near my apartment block and ended up having a rather awkward walk through womens' clothing and lingerie stores. Needless to say they didn't have the Зенить soccer team t-shirt I was looking for, or anything that would be acceptable to give to one's mother/sisters. Hopefully in the future I will be more successful...
So that about does it from here. I'm home now and will probably spend the evening relaxing and watching tv/chatting with my family. I have a bunch more pictures, so hopefully soon I will have the motivation to start uploading them onto Facebook or something.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


It was inevitable. I can't stay healthy at school, why assume I could stay healthy here in Russia? After a wonderful concert at Mariinsky concert hall last night I got home and had a pretty killer headache, and intense pain in both my ankles and knees. Needless to say, I think I made the right choice in taking a personal day. 15 hours of sleep, a shower, and a good shave later I'm feeling better, still not fantastic, but at least I'm functioning again. Tomorrow is a free day, Wednesdays are usually excursion days, but since we had our excursion Monday, we have tomorrow to ourselves. I'm hoping on getting some people together to go the Hermitage, one of St, Petersburg's biggest attractions and I believe the largest museum in the world. If I can pull something together that would be great, the museum's collections are extensive and the recently restored Amber Room is the pride of Russia.
Otherwise all is quiet here. I spent the day watching any number of ridiculous Russian television shows, including a "Scrubs" equivalent and some comedy about police. Hopefully tomorrow will be more exciting.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Quiet Weekend

So the weather took a turn for the decidedly apocalyptic on Saturday, so rather risk being washed away whilst riding on a rickety Russian train to nowhere, Natalia Aleksandrovna (my host mom) and I rather wisely decided to stay at home. One day turned into two, and in the end I ended spending a rather lazy weekend at home. To be perfectly honest I was perfectly content to sit at home, drink tea (which I have frighteningly enough developed quite an affinity for),watch dubbed Jean Claude van Damme movies on Russian TV, with a short break to watch the USA lose rather embarrassingly to Ghana, and have a rather lovely chat with Cantor family.
I've come down with a rather nasty cold, so it was good to have a chance to catch on sleep and try and get better. However, getting sick in Russia can be rather interesting, as one then risks being exposed to infamous home remedies. My first experience with Russian home medicine was a rather tame one however. After having first respectfully turned down rubbing mustard on my chest (I just imagined how many showers I would have to text to be wholly clean again) I agreed to try warm wine mixed with spices. I think it would have been good had the wine not been the same homemade wine I had drank with my host dad two weeks before. As you all know, once opened, bottles of wine do anything but improve with age. After having drank several cups of this concoction I can say with confidence that beyond feeling pleasantly warm, my cold did not improve. The funniest part of all this though has been my ongoing battle with Natalia Aleksandrovna over keeping my windows open. The selfsame breeze from an open window that we fight for tooth and nail at my house is considered a serious health hazard here. As soon as the slightest breeze picks up, there's a mad dash to close the double-pained windows (an ominous reminder of the very cold winter that awaits me in a few short months). Apparently almost any ailment or sickness can be traced to an open window and the breath of death that is an outside breeze. I've conceded the rest of the apartment to the Russians but I'm standing fast in defense of the window in my room, which happily ushers warm air and the sound of the birds outside into my bedroom.
So all in all I think the weekend has been a successful one. I've caught up on a lot of sleep, and am ready for a pretty busy week. Tomorrow we're watching a production at the Mariinsky Theater, and I'm hoping to pay a visit to the Hermitage Museum on our free day on Wednesday. That being said, I think this is the first weekend I've started to feel homesick. I realized how much I missed green vegetables (especially lettuce), cake, and life at home in general. Ironically enough, lettuce and cake both were on the menu today, so I'm two for three I guess. Anyway, that about does it from here. I feel bad making a post with at least some picture, so I'm posting some of my favorite pictures from my trip so far I haven't been able to post.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Жизнь Идёт: Life in Russia Thus Far

So, as it turns out I have a lot more time to kill today, and since I don't get to post much/don't want the first picture people to see when they look at my blog be Rasputin's rather large penis, I am posting yet again. I always talk about the big things, what we do on excursions and stuff, and I never really get to mention the little things. Even after only being here two weeks, I've really come to appreciate a lot of things here. Life in Russia is oddly carefree compared to life in the United States. It's kind of odd, seeing as both on a national and personal scale, Russians have more problems than Americans could ever dream of. Russians, or at least the Russians I have met, seem to have this odd detachment to events around them. Жизнь Идёт, as they say, life goes. At times this can be oddly refreshing, and at times you just want to grab people and shake them. Politics don't seem to interest the Russians I've talked to, they tell me that things are bad but there is nothing they can do to change it, so why get riled up? The same goes for most everything. Something's broken, the bus is late, for some reason every metro station you would want to go to is inexplicably closed. Why? You might want to ask someone. Why is the main metro station on the city's main street closed at rush hour? Because it is. That works for them, and I'm finding that it works for me too.
Away from the lofty philosophical things, two of my favorite things in Russia thus far are (oddly enough), the water heaters, and what I like to call 'the fluff'. The Russian water heater, the Russian name escapes me at the moment, is truly an odd device. An open pilot light sits over a grate. When you turn on the hot water, gas issues from the grate and is lit by the pilot light, heating the water as it flows through the pipe. They can rather scary to watch, open gas flames in tiny enclosed spaces would most certainly be considered a fire risk in the states. But here that's just the way it is. And boy are they effective, almost too effective, many a hour has suddenly become a boiling torrent as the water heater happily flames away.
'The fluff' has been my other favorite discovery. After much investigation (asking various Russians I meet in rather broken Russian) I have discovered that the fluff are the seeds from a certain march tree planted throughout the city. Originally intended to suck up the marsh water from the swamp Petersburg was built on, the trees now produce the fluff that is everywhere during the summer. On sunny days, it's like walking through a snowstorm. Fluff is in the air, on your clothes, it lines the street, it even invades buildings! I love the fluff because it is so much unlike anything back at home. It's almost as if someone is constantly kicking a giant dandelion all the time.
So in the end, I really do enjoy being here. It is hard at times too though. It's hard to be in a country with a culture so different from your own, where often times it feels like nobody can understand you. I often find myself sitting up in the constant daylight, missing all you guys at home. But I think that is a good thing too. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I think I'll definitely be grateful for my life at home when I return in August.
I think I'll leave it at that. Tomorrow I think I am going to my host family's дача or summer house, which is near the Gulf of Finland. I am very excited and will take lot's of pictures. I also posted a picture of the Narvskaya Gate, a huge monument to the War of 1812 that sits right outside my metro station. I hope you're all doing well and enjoying your weekend!

The Search for Raputin's Member

Hey all.
Yesterday was most certainly an odd day for me in Russia. After a rather normal day of class we decided to visit St. Petersburg's 'Erotica Museum'. According to the guide books it's a free museum which claims to possess Rasputin's embalmed genitals. Who wouldn't want to see Rasputin's penis right? After a rather lengthy walk through a part of St. Petersburg that has most certainly seen better days, we reached our destination. The guidebook was wrong on two accounts. One, the museum wasn't free (it was 100 rubles, or three dollars) and two, it wasn't really a museum. As it turns out, Petersburg's famed 'Erotica Museum' is in fact a working AIDS/STD's clinic. Needless to say it was more than a bit odd. Here are 8+ Americans, with sanitary booties on our feet, poking around an AIDS clinic, whose walls are lined with porno, and any number of household objects or little statues of penises or various people/animals having various kinds of sex, while all the while real people are there waiting to get tested for very real STD's. Needless to say we all felt extremely awkward. Yet, we came to see Rasputin's penis, and damn right if I was going to leave without taking at least one picture of it. As such, I present to you a picture of Rasputin's penis. A rather horrifying item more than a foot long, proudly being displayed in a cabinet along with pictures of Rasputin, and guns (who knows why guns were necessary). I guess our afternoon can be effectively summarized as such. We all payed three dollars to go to an AIDs clinic, feel awkward, and look at a penis. At least we got pins out of it...
The rest of the afternoon was rather enjoyable though. I went on a walk with my new Russian friend through a truly beautiful park in a very nice part of St. Petersburg. The park was commissioned by or for (Lisa was a little sketchy on the history part of it) a Baron by the name of Potemkin either for or by one of the many queens of Imperial Russia. Regardless of the history, the park was very nice. Beautiful trees and flowers, and more than few weddings. Apparently the park is a very popular place to take wedding photos, so we saw quite a few happy couples getting their pictures taken. The area around the park was quite nice too. The streets were a lot narrower(1 or 2 lanes as opposed to 4+), so there were fewer cars and less smog. The area is home to quite a few foreign consulates, so it is quite well kept up.
Today was a lot quieter. After another day of class I spent the afternoon with Nathan (our resident director) trying to work out my visa extension for next semester. My visa is being processed and I am once again passportless. Should I get stopped by the police, I'll have to rely on my rather unconvincing справка ( apiece of paper saying that someone else has my passport) and my student ID (I look like a criminal) to get by.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Hey everybody! Today we took our first real excursion of the summer. We toured Peter the Great's summer palace at Peterhof, about an hour and half outside the city. While the palace itself is beautiful, Peterhof's main attraction is it's beautiful fountains, which I believe (if I heard the tour guide correctly, number somewhere close to two hundred. The main attraction is the Grand Cascade, which streams down from the front of the palace into a canal which flows into the Gulf of Finland. The main cascade is topped off by the fountain of Samson, a rather impressive fountain depicting a disturbingly large muscled (and excessively shiny) Samson wrenching open the jaws of a lion. The fountain was built to commemorate the Russian (represented by Samson) victory over the Swedes (represented by the lion) in the Great Northern War, in which one decisive battle (the name escapes me) took place on St. Samson's Day. Another similar fountain (this one another obscenely muscled man wrenching open the mouth of a sea monster) represents Russian dominance at sea. The grounds of the palace were beautiful, everywhere we went there were beautiful fountains, buildings, or churches, and the view of the Gulf of Finland was really something else. I had two parts of the tour that I really enjoyed. The first was a series of trick fountains. Apparently Peter, in addition to everything else, was quite the joker, who enjoyed playing tricks on his guests. As such, the grounds are filled with fountains disguised as benches, trees, tables, and even paths, meant to spray unprepared visitors as they walk by.
All in all today was a great today, Peterhof was beautiful, and it was great to spend time and get to know everyone on the trip a bit more. I bought my own bus ticket home, and made it back to the apartment in time to see the U.S. beat Algeria. It's odd to think that as I sat at my dinner table at 7:00 o'clock and watched the game in Russia, people at home were just starting their day.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Алые Паруса, an Excerise in the Ridiculous

Hi all. This weekend was rather crazy so I'm just getting the opportunity to post now. Friday was a good day, I went to Буквоед, which could best be described as a borders, staples, all rolled together with music, a cafe, and Russian souveniers, in order to look for a new notebook to write down vocab in. I am happy to report that I found the rest of the "Glamour Girl" military girl notebook line. I'm really quite confused as to who (beyond me) would want to buy these. Seems to be, a girl with an AK-47 slung over her shoulder is not going to appeal to young girls. And no self-respecting, mullet toting young Russian man is going to want a notebook that tells him he is a "glamour girl". Who knows...
The of Friday was fun, some friends from the group spent a rather fun evening at a bar in town called "dacha". It was a great place to sit, have a couple of beers, chat with Russians and dance. Evening turned into all night for some of this though, as I agreed to help a friend get away from her rather clingy ex-boyfriend. Needless to say I missed the midnight closing of the metro. In the end however I'm glad I did. I got to make some new Russian friends, and I got free beer out of it. Sleep was a casualty however, as we were out well into the morning, and I didn't get home until 10 AM the next day.
Saturday, after a day of napping and homework our group went into the center for a concert on Palace Square for the holiday Алые Паруса. While I think there Алые Паруса is based on some old story (something involving a ship with red sails), the holiday now celebrates those students who are finishing their final year of school. It was really quite wild. Nevsky prospekt was shut down to traffic and the streets were full of drunken 16 and 17 year old Russians. Everyone was drinking, and by evenings end, we were literally walking about ankle deep in broken glass and discarded cans in many places. Needless to say even getting to the concert was an adventure. As is typical in Russia, their was a heavy police presence. In addition to the normal militia however I had the joy of encountering the ОМОН, or Russian riot police. Real giants of men in black berets and blue Russian combat camo carrying rather nasty looking clubs and in some cases, assault rifles. The ОМОН seemed to enjoy menacing everyone from their rather large prison trucks, barking orders as to where people could and could not go.
The concert is self was rather odd as well. Mullet sporting Russian male pop stars, and rather scantily clad female stars covering American music from the 1980's, in addition to their own material. At one point, Cirque de Soleil came out and put on 20 minute long performance.
Once again however, we missed the closing of the metros. Our RD had told us the metro would close at 3 AM, instead of midnight. With that in mind, we all rather happily stayed out until 2. Much to our chagrin (and in particular mine), the metros had in fact closed at midnight, and would not open to four. I'm sure you all can guess the rest of the story. In rare belligerent/grumpy form, I wait until four, battle my way to an open metro station (in typical Russian style, some metro stations remained inexplicably closed even when they were supposed to be open), and squeeze my way on to the first train home.
But my story doesn't end there. Upon arriving home at 5:30 AM, I found my host sister and friends celebrating their graduation with Champagne. I was obliged to join them for a few glasses, which was good. I got to make new friends and use the Russian that had fallen by the wayside in the wee hours of the morning. Unfortunately, sleep was even more delayed. In the end, I got to sleep around 8. Hopefully next weekend will be a bit quieter!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Russia: Where Hairstyles Come to Die

In my few days in Russia I have come to the rather horrifying realization that Russian men appear to be trapped in the 1980's and feel that the mullet is the epitome of style. I kid you not. The mullet, long since thought dead, is not only alive, but thriving in Russia. Russian men of all ages sport mullets with pride (see picture, not only does he a mullet, he has a braided and dyed one!). It is truly disheartening to see a five year old boy running around on the street with a mullet. SO take not, if you want to blend in in Russia, grow a mullet.
In other news, yesterday was the first day of class. I have really found the classes to be quite informative, and think I'm going to look forward to going to class everyday. Yesterday was also our first excursion. We took a tour of the Petersburg canals. The tour would have been great, except for the fact that it was raining and about 40 degrees. I did find it enjoyable though, and at times it was quite an adventure. Many of the bridges spanning the canals are quite low, and if you were standing on the deck outside, you had to duck to avoid decapitation by bridge. Except for a few brave souls (myself included), everybody seemed pretty miserable and stayed in the boat and spoke with their Russian tutors. Unfortunately for me, my tutor had an exam the next day and couldn't make it. Now I'm faced with the daunting task of calling a girl on the phone, whose English is apparently non-existent, and attempt to arrange a meeting. I desperately want to make at least one Russian friend however (I don't think the babushka who stands outside my metro station and yells at me in the mornings counts), so I'm trying to get ahold of her as soon as possible (apparently some dacha visits are a possibility if we get along). After our failed excursion, we spent a lovely few hours in a local bar. Beer here can be pretty cheap, and I ended up splitting three liters of beer with a couple of friends for about 100 rubles (3 bucks) a person. Beer was served in containers that looked like a mix between a water jug and a gumball machine. It was really quite something, unfortunately I didn't get a picture. That about does it for me. I'm still having a hard time adjusting to the fact that it never gets dark, even as I sit here at 11:15, it's still quite bright out.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


So apparently I can only upload one picture per entry, so here is another one so you guys can see my "glamor girl" notebooks (or one of them)

Catching Up

I vowed I would update my blog everyday. As you all can see however, I have already failed miserably in that task. But at least for today (gotta keep those goals realistic) I will dutifully post. My time thus far has been a whirlwind, Russia truly is uniquely Russian, and you really need to experience it to fully understand it. As such, the past couple of days have been quite an adventure, learning the way things work and trying to settle in. Yesterday was a pretty quiet day, we only had an afternoon meeting to go to. I did spend a lovely morning with my host parents though, chatting over breakfast (and a rather potent and large bottle of homemade wine) about any number of things. Whoever thought I knew the words to be able to talk about political problems with illegal Tajik and Uzbek immigrants in Russia?
The meeting, while nice, was rather uneventful. Afterward we went on a long shopping trip, buying any number of boring things, soap, hand sanitizer, and a long fruitless journey for used books. The most adventuresome part of the day was the journey back home. In the States you always here how Russian metros are crowded. In can tell that you don't have the first idea. I had no clue that so many people could be compressed into so small an area. It was like a giant clown car. Except nobody was laughing and the guy next to me really should consider investing in a stick of deodorant. The walk home was interesting too. As most of you know, my sense of direction is largely wanting, and yesterday (and today) were no exception. I spent a good 45 minutes traipsing in between parking lots, past abandoned apartment blocks, and around, as I am convinced are rampant everywhere in Russia, inexplicably mangled cars. Needless to say, my goal is to figure out how to get home, before I have to do so in the middle of the night. On the plus side though, I did get to take (with my rather weak photography skills) some interesting pictures.
Today was our testing day, we took a two hour long test that included a rather unintelligible written section, and an interview session with one of the Russian faculty members. I think my interviewer was rather flabbergasted when I chatted her ear of for half an hour telling her about my love for Russian history. Today was also a shopping day. I bought a cell phone and school supplies. Cell phones are wicked cheap in Russia, I payed about $20 for my phone and simcard, plus 100 rubles of talking time. In Russia, all phones are pay as you go. You can slot a couple hundred rubles into any number of handy machines located in most stores, and be free to talk away until your minutes or rubles (I'm confused as to which)or up, after which you just fill the phone up again. School supplies are rather odd in Russia. Notebooks are really small and thin, filled with graph paper, and cost about 60 cents a piece. I picked up four, two of which come from the Russian "glamor girl" line. How they are in the slight bit glamorous I don't know, since one is a picture of a rather oddly clad blonde woman holding a sniper rifle, and the other is a woman dressed up as Spetsnaz trooper. Glamorous indeed...